(Birch Bark Canoe)

In recent years there has been a movement to learn about Anishinaabemowin and traditional skills including how to build a wiigwaasi-jiimaan. The Birch Bark Canoe Project (BBCP), at the Ely Folk School, is a gathering place of valuable knowledge for the Ely area community and those traveling through. 

The birch bark canoe is an ancient vessel, used for thousands of years to support life in this vast region of lakes and forests of white birch trees. When hunting, foraging, traveling, exploring, or hauling, wiigwaasi-jiimaan was light to carry on portages and easy to fix when damaged. It supported a way of life and the makings were passed down through history by oral legend. One version says that the Anishinaabe were given the knowledge and taught how to make the birch bark canoe by cultural hero Waynaboozhoo.

The Anishinaabe birch bark canoe was made larger to accommodate French and English fur traders in the 1700 and 1800’s. Despite significant changes to the Native way of life after European settlement, the knowledge of how to build a canoe out of wiigwaas remains and has seen a resurgence of interest. In a paper that instructor Erik Simula wrote he says, “The birch bark canoe as a vessel can be a strong metaphor symbolizing Native exploitation as well as hope for self-determination and strengthened sovereignty. For non-natives the birch bark canoe can be a reminder of guilt and racism. For Native participants, building a birch bark canoe in a positive group setting can represent cultural pride, acceptance within community, and tribal identity, and for non-natives a chance for healing, racial equality, and renewal.” 

The Ely Folk School’s public canoe building class is a way for our community to build a bridge between the native population and the rest of us who have migrated North. For a small town with many varied opinions and backgrounds, the BBCP provides a space where we join together. We all share this beautiful landscape and its abundant resources. We have much to learn from each other, and there is something to be said about overcoming our differences through a common goal. If you are like many Euro-Americans and wish to better understand your ancestors’ and how to make peace with your own role in history, learning about Anishinaabe culture and tradition is a great way to gain appreciation and show your respect. 

For those desiring to learn more about Anishinaabe culture and tradition, the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum is an excellent place to visit. The Ely Folk School has our birch bark canoes on display, as well as books and resources for further learning. The BBCP began in 2016 led by skilled Canoe Builder and Instructor Erik Simula. The BBCP has built a 14ft canoe and is nearing completion of a 20 ft canoe. The project focuses on authentic building practices and locally harvested materials. 

Future goals for development of the birch bark canoe project include:

  • Incorporating more Anishinaabemowin into the program
  • Expanding advertising to include more native peoples learning to build the canoe in addition to inviting elders to come and comment
  • Starting each session with a circle gathering to build a sense of community, offer asemaa, and provide opportunities for native language speakers


Anishinaabemowin: language of the Anishinaabe

Asemaa: tobacco 

Waynaboozhoo: has many alternative spellings (Nanabozho) and in oral legend is portrayed as a divine trickster, that is a bit mischievous and humourous in teaching. Waynaboozhoo never commits crime and is viewed with respect and affection by the Anishinaabe people. 

Wiigwaas: birch bark

Wiigwaasi-Jiimaan: birch bark canoe

Further Reading